Peace, justice and strong institutions. Sustainable Development Goal 16 seeks to provide these to all people by 2030. Yet is this goal relevant? How are institutions related to development?

This question has lingered in the development community for decades. In our chapter, Kevin Davis and I map the long evolution of thinking around the relationship between institutions and development since the Second World War.

The prominence of institutions has not been constant throughout the history of development ideas, alternating between being in vogue and out of fashion at various times. In this context, SDG 16 reflects a high-level endorsement of the recent revival of the idea that institutions are connected with development, both in academia and in the policy world.

How do institutions contribute to sustainable development?

Including institutions as one of the SDGs is likely to draw more attention, and perhaps attract even more resources, to efforts to promote institutional reforms in developing countries. The question, however, is whether this will lead to any palpable improvements.

Skeptics argue that we have been here before, and that the story may not have a happy ending. Looking back, the 1990s witnessed a massive surge in development assistance for institutional reforms in developing and transition economies. This was the epitome of a herd instinct. Despite the billions of dollars, the results were mixed, with more pitfalls than successes (see Trebilcock and Daniels, among others).

One problem is a lack of knowledge on how to reform dysfunctional institutions. As Trebilcock and I have argued: “We do not know to what extent the existence of formal institutions, such as the rule of law and democratic accountability depends on certain underlying cultural values, such as individualism and hierarchical structures. Nor if formal institutions can change culture and vice-versa, and we do not know when and under which circumstances such changes are likely to take place.”

Even if one adopts an optimistic view, believing that such changes are feasible, it is unlikely that they will take place within a short time horizon. Most developed countries have reformed their institutions and experienced their maturation over decades, if not centuries. Thus, it seems unrealistic to expect that developing countries will achieve the same progress within the 15-year timeline that frames the SDGs.

What are we trying to achieve?

SDG 16 is divided into 12 targets that could answer some of the concerns raised above, yet some of these targets only make matters more complicated.

Peace is encapsulated in a target to “signifi­cantly reduce all forms of violence and related death rates everywhere.” The goal is laudable, as lack of security and violence are deeply rooted in complex and long standing structural issues. Yet, this target potentially opens the door for donor-imposed conditionality related to homicide and crime rates. This, in turn, could prompt governments to adopt “even more intrusive surveillance and policing tactics, while ignoring the structural causes of violence, such as income inequality and state-sponsored violence.”

Justice is described as a target to “promote the rule of law… and ensure equal access to justice for all.” The first difficulty here is to define rule of law, whether it is a thin concept (due process) or a thick one (fair and equitable rules). The second difficulty is how to measure it. For instance, aggregate governance indicators have been subject to criticism and only show that a problem exists. Such indicators do not offer guidance on how to successfully reform institutions. In this regard, we are still searching for knowledge.

Strong institutions are not much better defined by the targets. On the contrary. The target is to “develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels.” This is, however, a tall order, as Trebilcock and I argue in a recent book. There is mounting evidence that “fundamental changes in deeply-rooted institutions do not happen because of outsiders’ money, advice, pressures, or even physical force.” More introspection and thinking is needed if SDG 16 is to have any teeth.

How to create peace, justice, and strong institutions? This is a dilemma that the development community has been trying to address for over two decades, with limited success. With the end game still not in sight, including these targets among the SDGs is akin to Samuel Johnson’s observation of second marriages, a “triumph of hope over experience.”